The King of Vodka
The Story of Pyotr Smirnov and the Upheaval of an Empire
By Linda Himelstein
(HarperBusiness, Hardcover, 9780060855895, 416pp.)
Publication Date: May 2009
Other Editions of This Title: Paperback
In this sweeping history of vodka scion Pyotr Smirnov and his family, distinguished journalist Linda Himelstein plumbs a great riddle of Russian history through the story of a humble serf who rose to create one of the most celebrated business empires the world has ever known. At the center of this vivid narrative, Pyotr Smirnov comes to life as a hero of wonderful complexity—a man of intense ambition and uncanny business sense, a patriarch of a family that would help define Russian society and suffer from the Revolution's aftermath, and a loyalist to a nation that would one day honor him as a treasure of the state.
Born in a small village in 1831, Smirnov relied on vodka—a commodity that in many ways defines Russia—to turn a life of scarcity and anonymity into one of immense wealth and international recognition. Starting from the backrooms and side streets of 19th century Moscow, Smirnov exploited a golden age of emancipation and brilliant grassroots marketing strategies to popularize his products and ensconce his brand within the thirsts and imaginations of drinkers around the world. His vodka would be gulped in the taverns of Russia and Europe, praised with accolades at World Fairs, and become a staple on the tables of Tsars. His improbable ascent—set against a sobriety crusade supported by Chekhov and Tolstoy, mounting political uprisings and labor strikes, the eventual monopolization of the vodka trade by the state—would crumble amidst the chaos of the Bolshevik revolution. Only a set of bizarre coincidences—including an incredible prison escape by one of Smirnov's sons in 1919—would prevent Smirnov's legacy from fading into oblivion.
Set against a backdrop of political and ideological currents that would determine the course of global history—from the fall of the Tsars to the rise of Communism, from vodka's popularization by none other than James Bond to Smirnoff's emergence as a multi-billion dollar brand—Smirnov's story of triumph and tragedy is a captivating historical touchstone. The King of Vodka is much more than a biography of an extraordinary man. It is a work of narrative history on an epic scale.
Linda Himelstein began her career in the Washington bureau of The Wall Street Journal before working at The San Francisco Recorder and Legal Times. In 1993 she joined BusinessWeek as legal affairs editor, writing about a wide array of topics, including the tobacco industry and Wall Street. One of her cover stories helped BusinessWeek win the National Magazine Award. Later, as the magazine's Silicon Valley bureau chief, she wrote about the infancies of eBay, Yahoo!, and other companies. She lives with her family in Northern California.
One of “the year’s best books.”
“The book is an impressive feat of research, told swiftly and enthusiastically.”
-San Francisco Chronicle
“Himelstein brings thorough research and strong writing to bear on a fascinating subject.”
“Himelstein makes Russian history and even current politics come alive.”
“Linda Himelstein has pulled off a remarkable storytelling feat.”
-Julia Flynn Siler, author of The House of Mondavi: The Rise and Fall of an American Wine Dynasty
“To follow the lives of members of the Smirnov family in this vivid account is to experience the flow of Russian history from the 1830s until the present. ”
-Professor Patricia Herlihy, Professor Emeritus, History, Brown University and author of The Alcoholic Empire
“The story of the Smirnov family is an operatic tour-de-force, and Linda Himelstein tells it with grace and passion.”
-Tilar J. Mazzeo, author of The Widow Clicquot
“An astonishing tale...”